Soap comes in all shapes and sizes

d20 soap

I know it’s weird to write about soap, but bear with me here.  Awhile ago I saw this review for d20 soap! (There’s also Han Solo in carbonite soap). I’m not going to buy this product, and I certainly don’t want it as a present but I’m glad that it exists. This means that our hobby has reached the popularity of brass knuckles and bacon.

As most things do, this got me thinking about soap and novelty items in our games. First off, do the characters even bathe? Sometimes when get to a reputable inn after a few weeks of dungeon crawling, I’ll declare that my character takes a hot bath, but generally I assume he performs a modicum of hygiene in the background. I don’t think that the standard adventurer’s kit includes a bar of soap, scissors, floss, or a comb. Besides, it’d probably confuse the monsters if we all smelt like lavender and cucumber. However grooming and hygiene is an interesting aspect of one’s character to think about it: how does he or she present herself? Does he keep the armor clean and dent free, brush his hair (or fur?), etc. I know people in the real middle ages weren’t big on brushing teeth, but rich people certainly used perfumes and makeup (even if they were made out of deadly materials – like lead-based lipstick). Grooming should part of the image (or disguise) a character puts on, in addition to clothes (and hats).

What about novelty products? We have plush Cthulu’s and d20 soaps, maybe in your world characters should be able to buy bobble-heads of royalty, posters of great dragon-slayers, or plush Lloth’s. If the party performs some heroic deed that gets them renown across the land, an enterprising NPC (or character) can issue limited edition coins, collectible plates, or toys commemorating the event. It would be a nice memento for the characters to keep. And at $1 per die, a commemorative d6 for a long and fun campaign is not a bad idea, either.

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How to Tell When You’re Being Escalated

As part of my preparations for DMing a one-shot, I’m re-reading the DMG and DMG 2. There’s a section in DMG2 describing three different types of adventure pacing: Balanced, Spike, and Escalation. Balanced means the DM has decided to balance action and roleplaying, and balance easy encounters with complex/difficult encounters. Spike pacing concentrates the session/adventure on one major battle, forcing the players to go all-out. Escalation pacing puts the characters through increasingly difficult encounters, forcing them to use up valuable resources before the big final battle.

The DMG2 gives advice to the DM on how to grab the player’s attention so they want to keep moving to battle after battle, instead of stopping to rest. In my group, we’re very conscious of our resources, consumables, and daily powers and we’re hesitant to use them up, perhaps overly cautious. There’s some sneaky things DMs can do to “trick” you in to not stopping or at least not taking extended rests, and it’s important to recognize when you’re in one of those situation. Not in order to fight it, but so you can stop resisting and go along with her plans. The idea here is to trust in the DM and follow where the adventure is going. Fights when you’re low on healing and other resources are scary, but they can also be memorable and rewarding and it’s not fair to short-change yourself from the opportunity just to make sure you easily win each encounter.

So, what are the Escalation warning signs? These are most apparent at the end of an encounter (“what’s that unlocked door marked treasure for?”) or at the start of the next one (“why are all the goblins wearing name tags that say ‘minion’?”). If you run across some monsters that you’ve easily defeated before, or the set-up seems like you could just walk all over an encounter, the DM is probably throwing you a softball to keep things moving. It’s okay to use up some consumables and healing surges here, but save the dailies for the big encounter that sure to come. Keep going on for the big reward.

Another escalation sign is that you’re being baited. Whether there’s treasure around the next corner, a deity offering answers, or a side passage full healing potions: if it feels like you want to push on ahead and not wait, odds are you’re being baited to keep going. Just like I keep watching Lost week after week, after long since forgetting why, it’s important to run the adventure to its conclusion. The upside to being baited is that your characters will be rewarded for their efforts. Railroading is not being given a choice. Baiting is being given a choice, it’s just too attractive to ignore.

The more obvious escalation sign is an external pressure to keep going such a time limit (the dungeon is collapsing around you or your quarry is getting away), or the inability to take an extended rest (the area is too dangerous or too loud to sleep). These can be really frustrating to players, but these limitations also create a sense of drama and tension. While it might feel insane at the time, once you are able to catch your breath and look back on it you’ll have a great D&D memory.

Remember that even if your characters don’t have time to take a deep breath, as player be sure to take that time and call a break to keep things comfortable.

Yo, We Got Some Hats Now

I have to admit that I’m a bit of a hat guy. I’ve got a fancy collection of regional headgear from around the world. Every hat says something about it’s culture, climate, and traditional profession. I recently saw this chart of pretentious hats and it does a good job of making the point: hats say something about your character.

Whether we start off in media res, in a tavern, or with a long exposition, every 0-th adventure always has a “describe your character moment.” Generally people say something about race, facial features, armaments, and clothing. Little attention is paid to the headgear unless it’s particular part of the character’s flair: i.e. the iconic Cavalier hat with large plume of the Muskeeter.

Without bothering to find evidence to back up my claim, I’m going to assert that most characters in a fantasy world are going to have their head covered outdoors. Whether it’s for a formal holy day, a helmet on the town guard, or something with a wide brim to protect oneself from the sun. Players should expect that their characters have a good shot at identifying a villager’s profession and economic status by their hat. A gold-rimemd toque on a bloke at the market? There’ s a good chance he cooks for the king. A clean, yet threadbare bonnet? She’s either a poor married woman, or a pickpocket disguised as one! Adventurers are easy to identify: they’re wearing protective head coverings, dented and bloody, even when there’s no expectation of being attacked.

It’s reasonable to think that a freshly built character’s hat will nicely match the ensemble, but what about once she starts acquiring head-slot items? Most magic hats are helms, circlets, or crowns. How would one of those fit in with the rest of her outfit? As far as I understand the rules, head items don’t count as armor, and so she can wear a steel, face-plated helm with cloth armor. I know the rules make an exception for this, but I’d probably laugh at someone wearing a big steel fishbowl with his street clothes. What about a crown? Europe’s fanciest crowns almost have a tangible magic where you can believe in their magic. But even those were worn only on special occasions: they’re too heavy, fragile, and valuable to wear while adventuring, yet that is what happens in D&D. Imagine how much attention a character would draw walking around the woods or a city with a big, fancy crown! What would the actual ruler think? And I think fancy hats would also be an attractive target for a grab & run (that would make an awesome monster power–see below).

Rule-wise I think what the item physically is isn’t as important as its slot, and so when making your wishlist of items for the DM, feel free to ask for a head-slot item that appears in a form better suited to your character’s appearance.

For inspiration here is Wikipedia’s list of hats: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_hats_and_headgear. And here is the hat-stealing power I just came up with. It’s for novelty purposes only:

Thievery Utility ??Snatch and Dash

Like a madman, you grab your target’s hat and take off down the street.

Daily
Standard Action Melee touch

Target: One creature

Attack: Thievery vs. Reflex

Effect: Move up your full movement through a square adjacent to target. You have a +2 bonus to AC against opportunity attacks during this action. Upon entering the first adjacent square to the target, make a Thievery vs. Reflex attack.
Hit: You obtain the opponent’s headgear.

Prerequisite: You must be trained in Thievery.

First published at Mike’s D&D Blog.

Let me close with these immortal NWH lyrics: “Grab a brim, babushka, or yarmulke (Yo G, what about a bonnet?). It really don’t matter just put a lid on it.”

When you can’t talk it out

The solution to many of the player-player problems I’ve described over the past few months is a simple two-part solution: (a) don’t be a jerk, and (b) talk it out. This supposes not just that your fellow players are reasonable people, but that you’re all capable of giving and receiving constructive criticism. I would love to play in a game where this is the case, but I game in the real world where everyone around the table is an actual, emotional human.

At times in our game someone will say something in a way that annoys me, or the party will reject my plans, or I have to share the spotlight with others. I can be rational enough most of the time to see the other’s point of view, respect it, and go with what maximizes everyone’s fun.  But sometimes I strongly disagree with group’s decision or with one person in particular. In those situations, I usually keep my mouth shut because it’s not worth discussion, or I don’t to want to risk embarrassing someone, or it’s worth it to me for them to get their opportunity while I wait for my turn.  Also there are times when I just don’t know how to say what I want in a constructive manner that will be well received. This is the balance I’ve struck, and I assume everyone else is more or less on the same page.

This week one player’s frustration boiled over on to my DM’s blog. I read his comment as being frustrated with three aspects of a skill challenge: a mismatch in expectations about how the skill challenge should be run, a sense of character uselessness in the given situation, and the group action going off in a different direction. Personally if I were him, I would have found the combat portion more frustrating as we are still adjusting to our new group and the tactics did not pan out.

When two people have incompatible gaming styles, there’s not much that can be done so that both people still have fun. If you’re all about combat and are stuck in a game where most of the adventure is devoted into sitting around a parlor reading into NPC body language, you’re not going to have a lot of fun.  Both are fine ways to play D&D and if enough of the adventure fits what you want to get out it, then it’s worth your time to stay in the game, but otherwise it’s time to find a new group. But when two people at the table have different expectations about how a game should be run, this can usually be corrected. Sometimes the GM will promise one type of game and deliver another: e.g.   high seas pirate adventure turns out to really be a merchant-guild intrigue.  In that case, the party should either: call out the GM and adjust the adventure, agree that you’d all prefer the intrigue game, or elect a new GM. When the expectation misalignment comes from “I think skill challenges should be run like X” (which was what happened to us) or “I thought you would rule Acrobatics worked differently.” Here the player has a duty to constructively talk to the GM about the expectations, and negotiate a resolution. This is best done before or after a game, and it may not be resolved satisfactorily.

When it comes to skill challenges in 4e, I think that sense of character redundancy may be overblown. My engineering instinct is to maximize the party’s success at every point, meaning the person with the highest modifier has the best chance of making the roll. I’ve only had one failed skill challenge, so maybe it’s time to let up a bit and let everyone have a chance at making untrained skill checks. Usually the DCs are set so everyone has a reasonable shot. I think I may make a table of way out of the box uses for certain skills and rituals as a reference for myself for these situations and share it here, so people can use their main skills in off ways or off skills as primary roll.

For me, it’s difficult in a free-form situation to make sure that every player gets a chance to do something or influence the group decision. In last night’s game, I advocated for a plan that involved splitting the party to guarantee success in multiple aspects. My plan based on the rumors that the party heard and I was able to understand, which was not the entirety of the available information available. The plan we chose with was simpler and better, but until I was able to parse all the information and agree, I felt like my plan was being trampled but some of the other players. We had five people and five plans (to start) and not everyone based theirs off the correct set of assumptions (including me). It’s tough to get your voice heard in that situation. I understand from a logical point of view that everyone’s ideas should be considered before choosing a course of action, and I think we did that. I just prefer it when it’s my plan that gets chosen (which it does often enough). I also understand my fellow party members intentions and why they rejected the other proposed actions; those were either inappropriate or less appropriate for the situation.

I don’t know how to advise people to be more assertive in this group, and that’s the sticking point for me. I sucked it up loosing out on the plan, and it hurt at the time, but once we moved on to implementing it I started having fun again. Looking back on it after getting a good night’s sleep and having the beer leave my system, I know the group made the right call.  When advocating a plan, acknowledge the good points in everyone else’s plan and make an impassioned argument (including sharing the assumptions) for your own; and don’t just declare “this is what we’re doing.” And once that decision is made, people can start figuring a way for their character to be useful in it.

So… assertiveness advice?

More on Bad GMs : When it goes on too long

I want to continue my thoughts on managing your GM. Today I want to focus specifically on when you’re stuck at the game table too long. I find that in 4e, the two biggest users of time are combat and debating what to do. In our games we also spend a lot of time chit-chatting, and sometimes the games run too long because we want to reach a particular milestone or good stopping point, i.e. the “just 5 more minutes…” scenario. But in general these are good problems to have.  The tipping point for me was the DM’s challenge game I played in at PAX.  There we were held hostage until 1:30 AM, when I was ready for bed by 11.

There’s a lot a GM can do set the pace of an adventure and if it goes poorly, sometimes it’s his fault. But to be fair just as often it’s the fault of the players, and sometimes it’s just the nature of the game. In the case when GM is in a position to move the game a long, here are some suggestions to help him out so you can get home at  a reasonable hour:

You can encourage the GM to call a combat if it is going on too long. There comes a time in a 4e combat when you’ve got two guys left, they’re surrounded, and it’s only a matter of time to wear them down. This is the long slog and for many people (me included) it’s not a lot of fun. Players and GMs may be disinclined to call the combat at this point.  In some ways declaring victory feels premature or like it’s cheating, and we all want to feel like we’ve earned the victory.  Additionally, a GM may have motivation for wanting to wear the players down, to use up consumables and healing surges before the next battle. Also ending the combat early removes a chance, however slight, of player death. When you’ve reached the long slog, suggest to the DM that maybe he should call it so you can get to on the rest of the adventure. Feel free to bargain: offer to exchange hit points or healing surges to exchange for what you would have lost. In that PAX game, I got our DM to agree to call a combat once all the enemies were bloodied. That was followed by a few more frustrating rounds, but we got there and were then able to move on. Alternatively maybe the GM could award everyone automatic hits, that way there’s still random damage and a chance of death, but you won’t be delayed by waiting three turns to hit. A similiar strategy is to ask the DM for some random bonuses, like the @Wizards_DnD encounters tweets (#dndenc): they’re like a bonus +1 (not game changing, but gives 5% increase to hit).  I’ve been trying to get my DM to accept them during the game, but so far, no luck.

That should hopefully take care of the encounter speed. I’d be interested in hearing of other player strategies. There’s a lot a DM can do control the pace of a combat through monster/terrain choice, but those are pretty much out of our hands!

When it comes to the other type of encounter: skill challenges (or no-challenge RP), time can be wasted deciding what to do–or worse, coming up with suggestions and having your DM tell you that your decisions are invalid. Here you could try a “c’mon man, throw us a freakin’ bone!” to get the GM to give you hints. If the available options aren’t obvious, it’s possible her puzzle is too obscure. Ask if you can use any of the knowledges or insight to divine a course of action, or ask her to supply you with some options (not all of them have to have good outcomes). If the issue isn’t that you’re unable to come up with fruitful actions, but rather you can’t decide between players, you can try to get some more information out of the DM to help make that decision, or at least get her to acknowledge you’re deadlocked and could use a hint. This doesn’t happen very often, but I’ve found that GMs that want to watch you struggle aren’t inclined to give you hints, either. At a game I played at PAX, I basically wore down the DM by whining, but really he shouldn’t have let it get to that point. In my weekly game, each player gets a “free reroll” chit each night; I wonder if players (maybe one per party) get a “hint token” each session to exchange for such situations. Or maybe just a freebie divine guidance ritual.

In the “just  5 more minutes” situation, this seems like a good problem to have: you’re having too much fun to stop, even if you’re really, really tired. I previously had a post with great suggestions in the comments for stopping mid-game, so that could help there. When you’re playing a con game or 1-shot, there’s no next game, so it’s best to remember why you’re there. It’s tough socially but sometimes you have to walk away from the table. It’s douche-y to do this at exactly when the allotted time is up, but certainly there’s no need to be chained there hours after it was supposed to end. Besides, it’ll give the DM a clear message to plan better next time.

You’re Playing Your Character Wrong

Today’s Dork Tower illustrates a session recap where one of the heroes wound up doing tons of cool things the previous week , when the character was played  by different player.  I found great humor in this, as I have experienced this situation myself. It happens to all gaming groups: one guy can’t make it the table and so his character is picked up by someone else.  The big fear in this situation is that the character will die at the hands of someone else’s mismanagement or at least without the owning player to have a chance to make that death save himself. But what really ends up happening many times is that the character performs the same or better under the temporary player.

Does this mean the original player is playing wrong? Maybe.

It’s really hard to answer if someone else is playing your character better with only one or two data points over a few years. But assuming that’s enough data, let’s explore what I mean by “the character performs the same or better.” Firstly  I am referring to the character’s effectiveness in terms of usefulness in battle and influence among NPCS (as expressed by charisma checks, participation in interactions, etc). What I am not referring to is how “true to type” you think the character should be role-played (e.g. your dwarf is dour enough or your paladin isn’t preachy). Like any other art, role-playing is highly subjective and can be interpreted in many different fashions, including how well the artist (i.e. player) portrays a character. Like other arts, you can also apply “objective” measures of technical proficiency and use of the medium, but those are also a topic for another day.

At the risk of offending someone, I’m going to continue this article written from perspective that your character is being played by someone else. In this scenario you’re out sick for the week and your buddy picks up your character and proceeds to use him to kick ass and take loot on level that you never acheived. Why might this be?

  1. He’s got loaded dice, the DM likes him better, or it was just a lucky day. There are so many variables from week to week that it’s hard to say. Perhaps if you were present, the numbers would have come up in your favor as well. Either way, this is the least useful assement because there’s not much to learn from it. And without you missing multiple sessions with your character being picked up by the same player, and performing glorious exploits each time while being a dud with you, it’s impossible to rule out. This means you can stop here and go check out you tube, but if you are willing to entertain other possibilities:
  2. He’s got extra attention. When a player volunteers to run someone else’s character, odds are that he’s the one with the most extra energy that night to put into a second character. Especially if you game at night, it’s to be expect that some to everybody is pretty tired. It’s not anything you’re doing wrong, so much as that night your buddy was able to manage all that was going on. In fact, maybe it’s good exercise for everyone to take a turn at hosting two PCs. The extra burden of two characters might force you to be more efficient in terms of managing powers and choosing actions since you have to do it twice as often per round. With two characters, there’s no time to fumble through rule-books because your turn will always be next. In fact you’d have to spend more of the battle paying attention if you have to strategize for two different characters, meaning you might make better decisions for one.
  3. He can build synergies. Unless your friend is a role-playing superstar, he’s going to be tempted to play the two characters like they were of one mind, basically giving the player twice as many actions in a round. Because 4e is really built around PC combos, he can be really effective using movement and attacks. In the 8 ways your character can die, we joked about launching a fireball into melee, but when you have two characters you can have one hold back until after your other’s fireball explodes and then rush the first into battle. I find Hold Actionis not used optimally since everyone is vying for the glory of the kill. So it’s not that he’s playing your character better, but just being more effective with two independent weapons. The same synergy and holding action can be used in skill challenges with equal ruthlessness. If you’ve ever played in a party where another player has a Shaman with a spirit companion, you know what I’m talking about.
  4. He’s got more experience than you. For example, you recently started playing an elf ranger, but your buddy’s been playing elf rangers for the past two years and has a better feel for how they’re effective on the battlefield. Or even if your character is a new type to him, he might have a system for tracking conditions, using powers, or taking advantage of enemy weaknesses that might have escaped your notice. If this is the case, don’t get defensive or upset, but instead ask details of specific exploits so you can learn from him; watch what he does with his character and see if any of his style is applicable to yours.

This assumes you want your character to do be doing the types of things he did under the control of your teammate. Perhaps you’re playing a shy peacenik who would never charge into the middle of a battlefield, no matter how “cool” a scene it was. This should hold true for when you’re playing someone else’s character: you should try to be faithful as you can to how the character normally acts. Even if he has a +4 broadsword of smiting, if the character always hangs out in back and shoots crossbow, try to stick to that gameplan; you’ll be thanked by having your character portrayed accurately in your absence.

Team Evil

This week I got to do something I haven’t done in years: I made an evil character. There’s a lot of reason why playing evil characters generally gets frowned upon: the novelty wears off quickly and d&d is really set up to be a heroes game. On top of that, in my experience, evil games devolve into the characters randomly attacking everyone in town, and before long the characters are attacking each other. And if the game spectacularly fails, the players will be at each others’ throats.

This game, DM’d by (blogger gamefiend), was different than the stereotypical evil campaign. Firstly, only half of the characters were evil (and half good). It was set up very well so that the two “sides” did not start fighting. The good versus evil mechanic manifested itself as a series of skill challenges to save or corrupt an impressionable and ultra-powerful archon. The campaign still has yet to play out, and I hope Quinn writes about it with advice to DMs that might try to emulate. The game was sucessful because party’s goal wasn’t to commit an unspeakable act, but rather to retrieve a mysterious and ambiguously-aligned macguffin.

This experience got me thinking about what makes a successful evil character. Some measures of success could be number or quality of evil cats committed, infamy, or if playing a character at odds with the rest of the party, how memorable a character you made. In this case, I’m defining success as the character is fun to play and fun for the rest of the group to play in a party with that character.

First off I want to address the issue of alignment. In terms of (<=3.5 D&D) there is a big difference between Lawful Evil, Chaotic Evil, and Chaotic Neutral, but it’s easy to get confused. A character who goes around doing things completely randomly without thought to consequence or outcome (including random acts of violence) is probably Chaotic Neutral (CN). I’m sure there are people that can play role-play a CN character without being a sociopathic jerk, but I have yet to see it. A big difference between neutral and evil is motivation. Neutral characters might actively try to strike a balance or are emotionally detached from the world; whereas an evil character’s motivations will place his own concerns above the well-being of others (usually to their detriment). Law and Chaos are no longer a big deal in 4e, but for completeness: a Chaotic Evil character has no problem breaking rules, lying, cheating, killing, etc, but does so for some personal gain or to further a cause he might believe in. A Lawful Evil character, on the other hand, believes in law and order, although it might be okay for those rules to be cruel or unjust, but we expect to see a certain consistency in his behavior or an adherence to a code of conduct.

Beyond the matter of alignment, a playable evil character needs to be able to work together with other people. D&D is after all a group game, and it doesn’t stop just because your character is a bad guy. If you want to play a sociopath, it’s best that the character is able to suppress it for the majority of the game, otherwise your fun will be at everyone else’s expense.

Another important aspect when creating an evil character is getting the motivation and background right. The most interesting characters and best suited for gaming are ones whose evil comes a misguided belief in their own righteousness. Take Dongalore from Krod Mandoon, he just wants to be loved and respected, and doesn’t care how many people he has to kill to achieve greatness. Doctor Horrible had a hard time being evil until motivated by jealousy. My own character is motivated by the desire to bring order to the chaos and corruption he sees in the cities around him, he just happens to think the best way for that to happen is if he ran everything (like Ra’s al Ghul). When making your own character keep in mind that it’s only a few hops from “his parents were murdered by orcs” to “he hates orcs and want to kill them all” to “that neutral-ish dwarf tribe traded with the orcs, enabling them to buy weapons, so they need to be killed too” to “dwarves are as evil as the orcs and need to be slain.” I think that type of journey is an awesome canvas to paint a PC backstory. The “events” backgrounds (pivot event, early life, etc) in the PHB2/DDI are a good framework for that, just make it so your character chose a dark path during an important event: revenge instead of forgiveness, jealousy instead of acceptance, fear instead of understanding.

More than with good character, the player of an evil character should keep motivations in mind when role-playing. An evil character can get along with other characters and legitimate organizations, show mercy, or perform heroic acts if it furthers his own goals. In fact an evil character may be able to do more short term good (than a good character) if he doesn’t care about the motivations of those he’s working with, or if the consequences of his actions harms a third party or allies later. In fact, a great way to be evil is to help out someone (or let them think you’re helping) and earn their trust first; that’s how confidence men work. In fact “con man” might make a good build for a leader or controller.

Keep these things in mind, and you’ll be able to play an evil character and at the same time have fun, and accomplish something in a game session, and still be able to play with the same people next week. Evil luck!